A Tour Through Chinatown's Dun Huang Plaza

Dun Huang Plaza is the hippest strip mall in America
Dun Huang Plaza is the hippest strip mall in America Photo by Carlos Brandon
There are a handful of special places in this city that make you stop and ask yourself: "Am I still in Texas?" Dun Huang Plaza is one of those places.

The booming shopping center at the intersection of Sam Houston Tollway and Bellaire has become the hottest place in town for Asian dining, shopping, and self-care. With what seems like 100 businesses, nearly all of them immigrant-owned, Dun Huang is the new cultural and culinary heartbeat of Houston's Chinatown.

Suffice if to say, a single day is not enough time to properly explore every worthwhile locale in this endless double-decker strip mall. The long rows of storefronts and hectic weekend foot traffic can be a intimidating to the uninitiated, particularly those of us who can't read Mandarin, Korean, or Vietnamese. With a little help from Yelp and Instagram, you can do some quick recon on the musts and the busts, but a little blind exploring never hurt anyone.

The following is a tour of some of Dun Huang Plaza's most raved about, underrated, and interesting businesses, in the humble opinion of this author. Consider this a good starting point to your future love affair with this sprawling bazaar of Asian delights, but by no means a comprehensive report.

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Six Ping Bakery is the perfect starting point for a tour through Dun Huang
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Start your journey by heading to the far end of Dun Huang, to a small brightly lit storefront called Six Ping Bakery. The Six Ping brand is a Houston institution. The popular Chinese bakery chain has four other locations spread throughout the greater Chinatown area.

If Chinese bakeries are something you're unfamiliar with, this is definitely the place to get familiar. Despite the small storefront, the shop is lined with shelves displaying every imaginable variety of Asian baked good, from savory to sweet. A good place to start is with the shop’s famous buns. Individually wrapped and impossibly soft, a fan favorite is the traditional sweet red bean. A common snack for breakfast or dessert, the round golden bun is filled with a delicious red bean paste.

Craving something sweeter? Try the popular pandan sponge cake or one of the traditional Chinese roll cakes. Or just grab anything off the shelf, you really can’t go wrong. Make sure to bring cash unless traveling with friends, there is a $10 credit card minimum (which buys more buns than you should eat in one sitting).

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Beef noodle soup from String Noodles is a must this winter
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Staying in the back corner of the plaza, we shift focus to a more low key establishment. Just four shops away from Six Ping sits a small noodle house called Strings Noodle. Strings is one of a rising number of hand pulled noodle shops around Houston, specifically around Chinatown.

A window into the kitchen allows a clear view of cooks pulling and slamming noodles onto a counter all day. The noodles they pull make their way into rich broths to be served to hungry customers day in and day out. A small shop with an even smaller menu, there are only a handful of noodle dishes on a menu with less than a dozen total items.

The house special is the beef noodle combo. A Lanzhou beef noodle soup made with (obviously) hand pulled noodles in a rich and hearty beef broth that can be ordered “spicy” or “not spicy”, a designation relating to the amount of chili oil they add to your broth — the choices being a lot or none at all. We recommend opting for not spicy and adding chili oil at your own discretion.

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Salty ice cream anyone?
Photo by Carlos Brandon
A quick walk around the corner to the more prominent center of the plaza and you will find a contemporary little ice cream shop called Aqua S. Perhaps the most photogenic ice cream in America, this Australian import came to Houston in 2016 and has been the dessert darling of Chinatown ever since.

Known for their house specialty, a sea salt flavored blue soft serve that is as addicting as it is eye-catching, the real beauty of Aqua S lies in their rotating flavor model. While sea-salt is always on the menu, a second flavor is rotated through the soft serve machines every few days, allowing customers to try twisted variations of sea salt with new flavors.

Toppings like toasted marshmallows on poki sticks and cotton candy halos make the experience all the more whimsical and gram-worthy.

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Who doesn't like boba tea?
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Our final stop on this shotgun tour takes us to the Bellaire-facing front of Dun Huang Plaza. Sharetea is no local mom and pop. This international chain is probably the most recognized house-hold name in the world of bubble tea. While their Chinatown location isn't even the only one in Houston (the other is in Sugar Land), the Sharetea brand is like the Starbucks of Taiwan tea shops, so their presence in Dun Huang adds some level of legitimacy to the popularity of the place.

The most common bubble teas are typically the milk varieties with extremely sweet teas with milk and some kind of tapioca or fruit flavored gummies floating near the bottom. To an American palate, the milk tea flavor may be a little too foreign; or maybe dairy just isn't your jam. In any case, we recommend the kiwi fruit tea with aiyu jelly. A tangy fruit tea with kiwi seeds and a sweet Taiwanese fig jelly.

Whether you split these suggestions up into multiple trips or knock them out in one day, Dun Huang is a massive shopping complex with dozens of well reviewed and interesting businesses. From groceries to steamed dumplings, foot massages and sushi, this is a corner of our city worth getting to know.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon